Dakota Datebook

Murder and Lynching at Mondak

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Mondak was a boomtown that spanned the Montana-Dakota border until it burned down in 1928. It was a more high-spirited town than many in the early days, because North Dakota had prohibition, and Montana didn’t. For example, a notorious hotspot called Jakey’s saloon let you enter from the ND side, and you could then cross the room and buy liquor on the other side, which was technically in Montana.

On this date in 1913, the town unfortunately gained some attention it didn’t want when it became the site of two murders and a lynching in the same day.

The Williston Herald said it best when it reported, “Many conflicting accounts of the affair are in circulation, and the exact circumstances are hard to learn. The story, as sent out from Mondak, seems to be accurate in the main. According to this, Sheriff Thomas Courtney of Sheridan County (MT) was instantly killed Friday afternoon at the camp of the Union Bridge and Construction Company… Deputy Richard Burmeister was shot five times and died in a hospital at Williston late Friday night, and their assailant, J. C. Collins, a…negro, was forcibly taken from the jail there and lynched.”

The article went on to explain Sheriff Courtney and Deputy Burmeister had held office just four days when the shooting happened, but the reason they were trying to arrest Collins is pretty fuzzy.

The Williston Herald says, “Collins, who was about thirty-four years old, came here two months ago to enter the employ of the construction company, which is erecting a bridge over the Missouri River for the Great Northern railroad. (He) was staying with another colored man, who recently sold his shack to a third negro named Patterson. When Patterson arrived at the camp Friday to claim his property, Collins struck Patterson’s wife with his fists. Patterson returned to Mondak and swore out a warrant for Collins.”

The Bowbells Tribune told a quite different story, saying, “(The officials were) shot down while trying to arrest (Collins) on a charge of murder… The officials received word that Collins, who had been hanging around Mondak since last fall, was wanted in Iowa on a charge of (two murders). They found him in a farm house about a mile from the village. When the officers sought to place him under arrest, the negro whipped out a revolver and opened fire.”

The Bismarck Tribune later reported, “After the double shooting, Collins took the weapons of both men and sought hiding in the brush. A posse of Mondak citizens armed themselves and started in pursuit. Surrounded, (Collins) was driven to give himself up. When brought to Mondak, lynching was threatened, but cooler heads succeeded in getting him lodged in jail. A short time after, a mob of angry men…broke into the jail and obtained possession of the prisoner. Taking him to a telephone pole they hanged him and then set fire to his clothing.”

Sensationalism aside, it’s difficult to draw conclusions from the Collins’ lynching. Illegal hangings like this were fairly common in the early days. Usher Burdick wrote of some 40 lynchings that took place in the Williston area around the turn of the century. One particularly vicious group called The Stranglers has been credited with gunning down or hanging as many as 32 victims in the ranch lands of what is now North Dakota. Others disagree with these figures.

Many will wonder, “Was the lynching of Collins racially motivated?” Based on the conflicting newspaper accounts, and the fact that Collins never had his day in court, it’s pretty much impossible to say.

Written by Merry Helm

Source: Thomas Newgard, William Sherman and John Guerrero, African American in North Dakota: Sources and Assessments, 1994

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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